Q. I have been told that I need to take more omega-3s and was wondering if LSA or flaxseeds are enough, or do I need to take fish as well? I would rather not take a supplement.
Essential fatty acids (EFAs) are a really important addition to the diet. EFAs are used for energy when glucose is unavailable, so energy storage is one of the most crucial functions of fatty acids in the body. In a nutshell, burning fat as fuel for energy is efficient and sustainable in terms of long-term well-being.
Fatty acids are the building blocks of fat – in our bodies and in the food that we eat. The term “essential” simply refers to the fact that the body cannot produce the fatty acid, it must be gleaned from the foods we eat. Fats are broken down into their fatty acid components during the digestive process, allowing the fatty acids to be absorbed into the bloodstream.
A deficiency in omega-3 EFAs can result in allergies and asthma, compromised immunity, musculoskeletal conditions, endocrine issues, mood disorders, and cardiovascular problems.
Cold water fatty fish (or fish oil supplementation) is considered to be preferable since the EFAs are immediately available for use by the body, whereas the EFAs from nuts and seeds are provided in a more crude form that needs to be processed by enzymes within the body before they can be utilised. This means that it is a good idea for vegetarians and vegans to supplement with enzymes if they are relying on nuts and seeds for their EFAs.
There are two ‘true’ essential fatty acids – LA (Linolenic Acid), and ALA (Alpha Linolenic Acid). There are also a number of conditional essential fatty acids – DHA (Docosahexanoic Acid), EPA (Eicosapentaenoic Acid), AA (Arachidonic Acid), and GLA (Gamma Linolenic Acid).
DHA is an omega-3 which is usually a derivative of ALA and is the best fatty acid for brain function; EPA is another omega-3 and is usually a derivative of ALA, this is the best choice where fatty acids are required for their anti-inflammatory action; AA is an omega-6 and is important for the flexibility and permeability of membranes, typically derived from LA; GLA is another omega-6, good for inflammatory conditions and immune function and can be found in blackcurrant seed oil, evening primrose oil, borage/starflower oil, and hemp seed oil.
The quality of any dietary fats dictates the quality of your cells, since they are a considerable part of every single cell in our bodies. Fats from processed foods, heated vegetable oils, and hydrogenated oils are detrimental to health and can make nerve cell membranes unresponsive and rigid, which leads to problems with inflammation throughout the body, and the degeneration and malfunction of neurons.
One of the most important considerations when taking any form of EFA is to ensure that you eat dietary fats at the same time to maximise absorption. Along with being an important source of energy, fatty acids are required in the utilisation of protein, the absorption of vitamins A, D, E, and K, regulating the absorption of food, healthy liver functioning, the structure of cell membranes, moderating inflammation, and protecting our internal organs.
Since you (wisely) prefer to get your nutrients through your diet rather than via supplementation, the best food sources of omega-3s are cold-water oily fish (wild salmon, sardines, tuna, herring, mackerel, fish roe), egg yolks, beef, and avocados.
Flaxseed, chia seed, and walnuts are other good vegan/vegetarian sources, but people with digestive issues or insulin resistance have trouble converting the ALA to DHA and EPA.
As a final note, it is worth remembering that a ratio of around 1:1 of omega-3 to omega-6 is considered to be ideal. It has been estimated that most people today consume as much as 1:25 omega-3 to omega-6. Processed oils and fats, and processed foods in general contribute to this high consumption of omega-6, which makes it even more difficult for the body to convert ALA to DHA and EPA.
NOTE: The information contained in this column is not a subsitute for medical advice. Always consult a doctor.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved